January 2020

Are We Too Religious to Be Spiritual?
by Graham Standish


Visit Graham's website and blog in Presbyterians Today. (This article was first published in Presbyterians Today.)


I’m a little bit obsessed with the phrase “spiritual but not religious.” I have been ever since I first said it about myself when I was in college: “Nah … I don’t go to church. I’m spiritual but not religious.”

I still said this about myself even when I returned to church in my mid-20s after a nine-year hiatus to explore “the spiritual.” I said it about myself while I was in seminary as the seminary president chastised me for not going regularly to the daily chapel services. I told him that I had a hard time feeling deeply spiritual in those services because they felt too religious. He told me that going to the services were part of my obligation as a student. Floosh! My comment apparently whizzed by him. I wasn’t seeking obligations. I was seeking an experience of God. Why is obligation more important than experience?

I tussled with finding “the spiritual” as an associate pastor, although by then I was able to create small groups for those also seeking a deeper spirituality within the church. I struggled with it while working on my Ph.D. in spiritual formation as I studied the Christian spiritual tradition. Even after finishing my degree and becoming pastor of a church for over 22 years, I kept wondering whether or not we can ever overcome the basic problem that those who are “spiritual but not religious” criticize the church for.

Can you hear their critique?

We often don’t hear it because we’re too busy critiquing them. We say they’re spiritually lazy. That they’re just immature and will return when they get older (they’re not). That they’re too self-consumed and worship themselves. There’s some truth to all of it, but knowing that just causes us to become blind to our own problem.

Do we hear what they’re saying?

What’s their critique? It’s a simple one. They’re telling us that we’re “religious but not spiritual.” Could they be right? Are we too immersed in our particular religious traditions and theological thinking to fully appreciate how much we’ve diminished the spiritual in our churches? Here’s a way to tell. In your church, how often have you heard visitors and new members who weren’t already Presbyterian remark, “I came here because I really, really wanted to learn Presbyterian theology.” How often have they said, “I came here because I particularly like Presbyterian liturgy.” Maybe some, but they aren’t the ones who’ve walked away.

How many people do you know who’ve said, “I find God more on a walk with my dog than I do in church.” Or, “I just don’t find God when I’m in church.”

What can we learn from them?
How can we address their legitimate concerns? If people aren’t experiencing God in our churches, what are we really offering?

How can we become spiritual AND religious?

I’ve spent my career as a pastor obsessed with creating a church that’s both spiritual AND religious. I’ve written about it in so many books and articles. So have SO many others. And it frustrates me that we’re still stuck being “religious but not spiritual.”


So here are some thoughts you can discuss amongst yourselves to potentially help our churches reach out to the spiritual but not religious, and in the process possibly rejuvenate ourselves:

If we were to ask visitors where they experienced God the most in worship, what would their answer be?

If they don’t experience God, how could we change to help them experience God?

What would it take to change in ways that help them experience God?

Why do we persist to do things that turn off those who've walked away, such as:


Reading stodgy prayers from a book written in a formal style suggesting that God only listens to those who speak the right way? Why not just say prayers in a more sincere, normal voice?

Reading our sermons, which then are really written to be read instead of said? I have a simple thought: pretend your sermon is you causally talking to a friend over dinner, and only use language and sentences that would make sense one-on-one. And would you read your conversation from a manuscript?

Using odd “preaching voices” that feel out of tune and of a bygone time? Use your own voice and speak how you would want to be spoken to.

Persisting in loading services with words, words, and more words when trying to reach generations that are more musical, visual, and experiential? Let go of printed, responsive calls to worship; reduce printed prayers; and simplify the service by adding more times of silence and music. The music doesn’t have to be contemporary, just varied.

Why won’t we ask those who’ve walked away what might get them to walk back, AND then try new things? Have members talk to their children and grandchildren, neighbors and friends, and start generating ideas on how to become a place people who’ve walked away from might walk back towards.

Can those who are the problem become the solution?

I do know what prevents us from all of this. We’ve already lost younger generations because we haven’t changed, and we fear the wrath of older generations if we do. So make that older generation part of the solution. Lead them to realize that it’s their responsibility to create a church for others, not themselves. Get them to investigate and discuss the problem, and ask them to lead the changes. It’s not hard. It simply means getting them to stop criticizing those who’ve left and start listening to them.



A pastor for 31 years, the Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is now executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, where he also runs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations Program. He is the author of 7 books on spirituality and congregational transformation, with a new one, “…And the Church Actually Changed,” due in Spring 2020 (www.ngrahamstandish.org).


December 2019

The Smallest Things Can Make the Biggest Difference
by Graham Standish


Visit Graham's website and blog in Presbyterians Today. (This article was first published in Presbyterians Today.)


“He never follows through,” the church member complained.


“What do you mean?” I asked.


“He’ll call and say he’s going to drop by the hospital, or check up on us later, or send us something, but he never does. I think that’s why we’re all wondering if we called the right pastor,” she replied.


I’m hearing more and more complaints like this about pastors from members of struggling churches. It’s not just griping about failing to follow through. It’s critiques that increasingly pastors aren’t doing the small things that make a big difference.


Pastors have similar laments: “The members don’t seem to like me or trust me.”


We’ll talk about the big factors that may be causing this—are their sermons relatable, are they empowering others, do they have a compelling vision, are they communicating well enough? But maybe a big problem is that pastors are so overwhelmed with big things that they’ve forgotten just how big a difference the small things make.


Over the past two years I’ve been collecting a list of small things I’ve noticed that struggling pastors and declining churches perhaps don’t pay enough attention to.


See if rethinking these may help you either as a pastor or a church:


Sunday welcome

What always stands out in all the churches I visit is how well a they welcome people. Do the greeters seem happy that I’m there, or do they just hand me a bulletin? Do any members notice me when I sit in a pew? How enthusiastically does the pastor greet the congregation? Sometimes it’s alarming how bad the welcome is.


A greeter in one church welcomed me by saying, “Here! Do you have a pencil? You’ll need one during the sermon.” That was it.


In a number of churches the pastor or a church member might read a formal, almost robotic, welcome from the pulpit. Nothing says, “I’m glad you’re here,” like a monotone, scripted welcome. Imagine doing that at home with guests.


Meanwhile, in healthy churches often the pastor or a member authentically says (with no script), “We are so glad you are here this morning. We are so grateful for everyone here. We hope you’ll stay around afterwards for coffee and get to know each other.”


For pastors, the most effective way to encourage a congregation to become welcoming isn’t to preach a sermon on welcoming others. It’s to train them to welcome others.


Pastor greeting

As pastors, how well do we greet people, either before or after worship? Are we too busy beforehand to say hi? After worship, when shaking hands, do we enthusiastically greet people?


I visited a church several months ago and watched the pastor do a wonderful job of walking around the sanctuary before worship, placing her hand on the shoulder of members while sharing warm conversations.


After worship she shook hands, said hi to each member by name, and really demonstrated that she cared.


Meanwhile, I recently visited another church where the pastor showed up ten minutes before worship, clinically and almost coldly shook hands afterwards, immediately went into his office, and left the church 20 minutes later.


Guess which church was struggling?


Pastor small talk

Many people who are attracted to ministry are introverts. They love studying theology and other disciplines. They love preaching. They love spending time alone in deeper thinking. The problem for introverts is that they are serving in a field that requires engagement and relationships — that requires extroversion as well.


In essence, pastors need to be ambiverts — people who are comfortable being both introverted and extroverted.


Many pastors hate engaging in small talk because they don’t know what to say. The secret to small talk is simply finding what interests people and listening and sharing. Once we’ve engaged them, the conversation builds a relationship, and that relationship helps them like and trust us.


Responding to e-mails and texts

This is so simple that it feels almost too simple to say. Still, a HUGE complaint is that pastors don’t respond quickly (or at all) to texts and emails. I have an 8-hour rule. I have to respond within at least 8 hours. Even if I don’t have an answer or need more time, I let them know when I’ll be able to get back to them. And then I follow the next suggestion…


Following through

Too often I hear members complain that a pastor will say, “I’ll be there,” or “I’ll call you,” or “I’ll get back to you,” and she or he doesn’t. I’ve been guilty of this myself way too many times. There are so many legitimate reasons why. But follow through anyway because it builds trust.


Coffee time

I’m amazed at how many churches clear out within 10 minutes of the end of a worship service. In declining churches, the skedaddle happens quickly. Enthusiastically inviting people to stay for coffee after worship is such a simple way to help people build relationships, as long as the pastor lingers for it. Emphasizing it week after week eventually gets people to stay. In congregations where people linger, relationships grow.


Communicating “I like you”

Again, this is so simple, but I’ve talked with members of many churches who think their pastor doesn’t like them. Why? The pastor doesn’t engage with them in a way that says, “I like you.” To me this may be THE most important thing a pastor can do, especially in a church where there’s some level of conflict.

Often churches go where the leaders go. If they leader doesn’t remind members that they are loved, the church may respond with a lack of love.


Sometimes it is the simplest things, the smallest things, that can have the biggest, most profound impact.


A pastor for 31 years, the Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is now executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, where he also runs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations Program. He is the author of 7 books on spirituality and congregational transformation, with a new one, “…And the Church Actually Changed,” due in Spring 2020 (www.ngrahamstandish.org).



October 2019

Can We Be Missional if We Have Dirty Bathrooms?

by Graham Standish


Visit Graham's website and blog in Presbyterians Today. (This article was first published in Presbyterians Today.)

Over the past few months I’ve been working with a pastor enrolled in a missional church certificate program intended to transform his church.

He’s frustrated. He loves learning new ideas for ministry. He loves their energetic discussions about “walking” the surrounding community to figure out how to respond to the community’s needs. He loves how encouraging his teachers are. But he’s struggling with nagging questions: Have they ever pastored a church like mine, or are they mostly focused on new church developments? What happens if we address a community’s needs and they still don’t care? What happens if people show up and they discover that our church is old and out-of-touch?

I said to him, “True. If they aren’t attracted to your community, it won’t matter how much you walk their community.”

A church where people want to be I’m not trying to take a shot at the missional church movement. I’m suggesting a complementary tenet to what it teaches: We can’t be a church for others until we become a church where others want to be.

Wait, am I saying that our churches should become more like country clubs? I hate to break it to you, but most country clubs are better at community than we are. They grow precisely because they’re community centers where people meet to eat, talk, play games, create friendships, hold their weddings and funeral luncheons and celebrate holidays. Everything flows out of their sense of community. Is that true for our churches?

When I became Calvin Presbyterian Church’s pastor 23 years ago, they said they were a mission-oriented church. It was sort of true. They gave 18% of their $130,000 budget to mission, had done one or two work mission trips over 18 years, and were the phone line for Habitat for Humanity. Good job! But they had also formed the kind of tight-knit community typical of declining churches, becoming a community mainly for themselves rather than for those outside the church. And it showed. The church was in tragic disrepair with outdated décor, wrinkled carpets, dull lighting, peeling wallpaper and a 1960s vibe (not in a good way).

They had been taught by the previous pastor that spending money on church upkeep was selfish money. They needed to spend it on mission, not themselves. Unfortunately, by becoming a dilapidated, worn out place (much like a formerly glorious country club with threadbare carpets and sagging furniture) they stopped being a community that attracted others. One of my first tasks was changing the message: If you become a caring place that others want to be a part of, you’ll end up doing more mission than you ever dreamed of. And that’s what happened.

We cleaned, renovated and expanded, but even more we became a community for others. As we grew, our mission giving and activities expanded. By the time I left in 2017, we had quadrupled our mission giving. Even more, a significant number of members were active in all sorts of creative missions — from collecting bicycles for a Native American reservation, to helping Syrian war refugees build new lives in Canada, to helping maintain and staff Camp Westminster in Michigan with its mission to inner city children from Detroit. It all flowed out of our growing as a compassionate community for ourselves and others.

How can we create a community for others?

I have a theory about how to tell if our church is a community for others: Look at the condition of its bathrooms. They’ll reflect the condition of the church community. If the bathrooms are outdated, stained, smelly and neglected, the church probably has given into decline and now is a mostly closed community. If they’re cared for and clean, the community wants to be a place that cares for others and has confidence in itself. Your bathrooms tell others who you are.

Here are some other quick thoughts on building a church community that attracts others:

Try new ideas that create a new vibe. The more your church community tries things that seem creative —a talent show, an art show, a blessing of the animals, a Green Day (showing people how they can make their homes and the world more “green”), a game night — anything atypical and creative — the more people will want to try your church.

Offer childcare and children’s programming that’s clean, safe and fun staffed by childcare volunteers or staff who are well-trained, friendly, and competent, even if you don’t get many children on a regular basis. If you don’t have childcare and programming that young parents feel good about, they won’t trust your community.

Treat visitors the way you would welcome them into your own home. Train members to welcome visitors in a way that gently says you’re glad they’re there, that you want them to feel comfortable, that you’re available to answer questions, that lets them integrate at their own pace, and that welcomes them back. DON’T act like you’re desperate for them to like you.

Work on congregational cohesiveness. Nurture people to have healthy relationships, which means encouraging people to talk directly with each other and not behind each other’s backs; to be flexible and accommodating with each other; and to be compassionate with each other.

Create opportunities for people to get together in different contexts—dinners, prayer groups and vigils, classes, mission speakers, clean-up days, fun events, outings and so many more, even if it means more work for us. Make it hard for people not to connect outside of worship. A little secret: People don’t really connect during worship because they never get a chance to chat in worship.

Encourage people to become a church community for others, not just for themselves. Emphasize love, compassion, graciousness, generosity, kindness, and all the other attributes that lead to forging a healthy community that can then become healthy ministry and mission.

The key thing to remember is that if a congregation isn’t invested in creating a truly caring, compassionate community, it also won’t care enough to reach out in mission.

A pastor for 31 years, the Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is now executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, where he also runs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations Program. He is the author of 8 books on spirituality and congregational transformation (www.ngrahamstandish.org). Click HERE for information on Samaritan's services for pastors and churches.



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